Tuesday, December 31, 2013
The year 2013 could go down in many people’s memories as one of the more stressful ever experienced in the Eureka Springs area. Never before had so many home and business owners faced such a serious threat. Many people had difficulty sleeping at night, wondering if they would lose not just the value of property they had spent a lifetime paying for, but a way of life tied to love for the special natural environment rich with caves, springs, clear flowing rivers and scenic mountains.
The year 2013 was the year SWEPCO (Southwestern Electric Power Company, a subsidiary of American Electric Power) became a dirty word. Shock waves ran through the region in April as hundreds of property owners received notice that their property was on one of six proposed routes for a massive 345 kilovolt (kV) power line 49 to 56 miles long with poles 150 to 160-ft. tall –three times taller than most conventional power poles – requiring the clearing of a right-of-way 150 ft. wide from SWEPCO’s Shipe Road substation to a proposed new $20-million King’s River substation located near Berryville.
The SWEPCO application filed before the Arkansas Public Service Commission (APSC) in early April was for the largest electric line ever proposed for Carroll County, a line that SWEPCO planned to build through some of the most scenic and environmentally sensitive areas of the region. The proposal caused alarm for the immediate impacts of cutting down that many trees and the destruction that would be caused by excavating holes seven to ten ft. wide and 30-40 ft. deep for foundations for the large monopoles. And there have been grave concerns about the spraying of herbicides on the right-of-way for the power line in a region where the sieve-like karst topography allows whatever is sprayed on the ground to enter groundwater, contaminating wells and water bodies important to people and wildlife, such as the White River.
The year 2013 was a year of unprecedented citizen action to protect their homes, the environment and the tourism economy. Hundreds of orange “No SWEPCO” signs appeared around Carroll County and in eastern Benton County. The citizen group, Save The Ozarks (STO), quickly emerged as the leader in opposing the project, including organizing what was likely the largest turnout for an APSC hearing in the agency’s history. For two long days in mid-July, the hearing room at the Inn of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs was filled with hundreds of people who came armed with passion, determination and knowledge about the local environment largely missing from SWEPCO’s deeply flawed, boiler plate Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that, it was learned, was largely copied from the EIS of a similar SWEPCO project elsewhere. A total of 229 people gave comments out of 327 who signed up to speak, with many not being able to speak because of time constraints.
The SWEPCO issue dominated this newspaper’s coverage for the year with more than 200 news articles, editorials and letters to the editor on the subject. The issue was also covered by daily newspapers and television stations in the region.
On July 15, an article in the Joplin Globe said, “Several who testified called the controversy a ‘defining moment’ for Eureka Springs and Northwest Arkansas. Others referred to a line having been drawn in the sand between the people and corporate America.”
STO leaders, including Director Pat Costner, STO board member Doug Stowe, and Jeff Danos, dug into the details of the applications including the very most critical factor: Did SWEPCO prove that the power line was truly needed? STO said no, and provided critical expert witness testimony before the APSC in Little Rock that underscored numerous deficiencies in the application – including SWEPCO’s failure to establish need for the project estimated to cost $119 million – without the major cost overruns STO felt were unavoidable because SWEPCO failed to factor in the higher costs of construction in a karst region.
Stowe said one of the biggest failings was not considering the cumulative impacts of the project.
“Allow one big power line like that and they’ll insist on another and since the land is already been decimated, you’ve lost already,” Stowe said. “The cumulative effects that the power companies and the APSC claim are not to be considered are enormous.”
SWEPCO said the proposed facilities “will provide increased reliability and overload relief in eastern Benton County and Carroll County.”
Costner said the justification given by SWEPCO for the project was to prevent power overloading of two lines – Beaver-Eureka 161 kilovolt (kV) and East Rogers-Avoca 161 kV – if there is a future outage of the Flint Creek to Brookline 345 kV line that goes to Springfield, Mo.
But STO expert witness Dr. Hyde M. Merrill said in APSC testimony that the planning studies conducted by Southern Power Pool (SPP, a nine-state regional transmission organization that SWEPCO said told it to build the line) are out of date, and failed to establish the need for the proposed project in 2016 based on what is known today.
“SPP’s current model shows that the problem does not exist,” Merrill said.
STO Attorney Mick Harrison said in filings before the APSC that SWEPCO originally proposed to rebuild 161 kV transmission lines rather than building the much larger line, an option that would have cost far less and been much less damaging to the environment, property values and tourism.
“SWEPCO’s lack of candor in its application to the commission, regarding which party really wants a 345kV line and why, is sufficient reason for this application for a Certificate of Environmental Computability and Public Need (CECPN) to be denied,” Harrison said.
Further evidence that the line was not needed came from SWEPCO itself when, at the very end of hearings before the APSC in August, SWEPCO filed a motion to re-do its application. Costner said that showed that SWEPCO realized it had failed to prove the project was necessary, and now wanted to put forth a different rationale. STO has opposed that motion stating that it wouldn’t be proper for APSC to rule on a different application than the one for which property owners were given a legal notice for.
Late in the year opponents of the project were heartened by a letter from the National Park Service (NPS) that “strenuously disagrees with the staff’s conclusion that NPS concerns about the American Electric Power/Southwest Electric Power Company (AEP/SWEPCO) Shipes Road to Kings River power line proposal have been addressed, and that the project would have no significant impact on the Pea Ridge National Military Park and the Trail of Tears.”
The NPS asked that the APSC “take no action on selecting a route due to insufficient historical resource information from which to base a decision.”
The SWEPCO project generated nearly 6,000 opposing comments to the APSC, and oral testimony from hundreds of citizens opposed to the project generated a transcript 1,166 pages long. The project was opposed by all the cities in or near the power line, by the Carroll County Quorum Court and by the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, which named Costner as its “Woman of the Year for 2103.”
Costner said the most important thing regarding the SWEPCO issue is the countywide consensus that this project is not wanted or needed.
But in a stunning display of deafness to public concerns, in October the staff of the APSC brushed off all concerns and recommended that the project be approved.
“The recommendation by the APSC staff shows either overwhelming incompetence or unabashed determination to get SWEPCO”s project approved despite all evidence to the contrary,” Costner said.
Costner said SWEPCO has completely failed on numerous counts to meet legal requirements for receiving a CECPN. Costner remains hopeful Administrative Law Judge Connie Griffin will be fair and balanced in making a recommendation to the commission. Griffin’s decision is expected by January 20, 2014. Her recommendation and that of the ASPC staff will be considered by the three-member appointed APSC that has final say on the matter.
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